"Big-Time" Media Critic
George W. Bush does not read newspapers. Nor does he watch much television news. He says that he relies on his aides to provide him with the information he needs.
And, of course, Dick Cheney is the adviser-in-chief.
Thus, just as when Cheney let Bush to determine that the best Republican running mate would be, er, Dick Cheney, so the vice president fills in the considerable gaps in the president-in-name-only's knowledge base with an eye toward achieving his own ends. Cheney is no fool in this regard. Recognizing that he is an unpopular figure within the administration and in the country at large, he goes to great pains to foster the fantasy that Bush is regularly handed a full pallet of proposals -- from which the president, presumably, picks the plan that matches his mood.
But the pallet never offers real choices, as should be obvious by now. Former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill and other refugees from the Bush White House have noted in agonizing detail that this is not a White House that entertains a lively intellectual discourse. In part, this is because Cheney plays the role of ideological commissar, constricting and manipulating the flow of information and ideas to conform to his political and personal purposes.
But it is important to remember that, while Cheney does read newspapers and magazines, listen to the radio and watch television and news programs, he does so with a bias. He likes his media pliant and unquestioning. For instance, the vice president recently told a gathering of journalists that, in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, when television anchors started sporting flag pins and the quality of reporting was so inept that most Americans actually thought Saddam Hussein's Iraq was somehow linked to the violence, "American journalism (had) produced some of its finest work ever."
Dick Cheney does not have a taste for media that might challenge his preconceived notions. And he has never approved of reporters who believe the White House has a duty to communicate critical information to the American people. Cheney is not joking when he says, "It's easy to complain about the press -- I've been doing it for a good part of my career."
A militant when it comes to White House secrecy, Cheney has a long history of punishing aides who cooperate with reporters -- before the 1991 Persian Gulf War, then-Secretary of Defense Cheney fired Air Force Chief of Staff General Michael J. Dugan for discussing general war planning with the Washington Post.
But, while Cheney can be rough on his subordinates, he is even rougher with the rare journalist who seeks to be anything more than a stenographer for the White House.
Cheney summed up his attitude when, during a campaign stop in Naperville, Illinois, in 2000, non-newspaper reader Bush noted the presence of one of the few reporters he actually knew by name.
"There's Adam Clymer -- major-league asshole -- from the New York Times," grumbled Bush.
"Yeah, big time," said Cheney.
Clymer was not the first journalist to end up on Cheney's "big-time" asshole list. A quarter century before the 2000 incident, when Cheney was serving as the White House chief of staff in Gerald Ford's administration, he organized a West Wing discussion about how to launch a criminal investigation of journalist Seymour Hersh -- and the New York Times, for which Hersh was writing then. In May, 1975, Hersh had written an article exposing the fact that U.S. Navy submarines had intercepted high-level Soviet military communiques by tapping into underwater telecommunications cables. Only after learning that the Soviets were not surprised by the spying -- presumably, they expected it -- did Cheney back off from the discussion of how best to go after one of the nation's most respected investigative journalists.
(Cheney's concern for protecting intelligence gathering operations is somewhat episodic. While he was coordinated the debate about how to go after Hersh in the 1970s, he convened no such discussion in 2003, when concerns were raised about the prospect that Cheney or a member of his staff had "outed" CIA agent Valarie Plame, the wife of former Ambassador Joe Wilson, who had exposed the dubious use of intelligence by a White House that was bent on making a "case" for war with Iraq.)
Hersh and Clymer need not feel particularly insulted. Throughout his career, Cheney has generally viewed journalists as the enemy. In April, 2004, shortly after the invasion of 2003, the vice president reacted to reports that U.S. troops had killed three journalists on the same day, after firing into the Iraq office of the al-Jazeera network and the Palestine Hotel, where many international reporters were staying, Cheney casually announced that this was "the sort of thing that happens in warfare." Cheney declared that "you'd have to be an idiot to believe that (the attacks were intentional)." But, around the world, leaders of journalist organizations, diplomats and prominent political figures expressed precisely that concern.
Cheney's disregard for the fourth estate is not universal, however. He has always had favorite journalists, some of whom are able choniclers of the conservative cause (such as the Washington Post's Lou Cannon) but most of whom are the stenographers to power who peddle white House talking points as "news."
Cheney divides the journalistic community into two camps: "big-time" assholes and employees of Australian-born media mogul Rupert Murdoch far-flung empire on the other. Murdoch's ideological organ, the Weekly Standard, may not have many readers outside the narrow circle of neoconservatives who still think the war in Iraq was a good idea. But it enjoys high circulation inside the White House. Editor William Kristol likes to suggest that the journal of uninspired imperialism has "induced" Cheney and others to embrace his publication's faith that America is ideally suited to fill the void left by the decline of British Empire. Editors always like to imagine influences that may or may not exist. But, in this case, Kristol can point to some might solid evidence of Cheney's devotion to the Standard vision. As he notes, "Dick Cheney does send someone to pick up 30 copies of the magazine every Monday."
Cheney is no elitest when it comes to Murdoch's products, however. A big viewer of the talk-television shows that clog cable systems with nightly conservative diatribes, Cheney delights in the programming on Murdoch's Fox News Channel. Indeed, he's a regular But Fox afficianado.
Cheney, who in March of 2004 proudly noted that "my last full-blown press conference was when I was Secretary of Defense in April of 1991, may not have much time for most media. But Murdoch's Fox News Channel, the court reporter of the Bush administration, can always count on an interview, a leak or, as happened in April of 2004, an official endorsement from the vice president. "What I do is try to focus on the elements of the press that I think do an effective job and try to be accurate in their portrayal of events," Cheney told Republican activists who were griping about the media. "For example, I end up spending a lot of time watching Fox News, because they're more accurate in my experience, in those events that I'm personally involved in, than many of the other outlets."
So let's be clear about where the White House gets its "independent confirmation" of the news of the day. Bush does not read newspapers or watch the news, while Cheney reads the Weekly Standard and watches Fox. Come to think of it, maybe Cheney isn't really in charge. Maybe Rupert Murdoch is the boss.
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